According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2021), on an annual basis more than 650,000 offenders are released from incarceration and return to communities nationwide. While there has been much work on criminal justice policy regarding punishing and incarcerating those individuals, who have been convicted within the court of law, little provision has been made for them when they get back out. Although formerly incarcerated people have been transitioning from prisons to communities for over a century, many returning citizens still face social, political, and economic barriers that prevent them from successful reintegration. This paper examines some of the foundational barriers that restored citizens face upon leaving prison, particularly when it comes to employment. The author also explores some of the social and economic implications of keeping justice involved individuals out of the workforce. Finally, the author offers solutions to addressing some of these issues by touching on some reentry projects that have been implemented within U.S prisons, as well as touching on some federally funded programs and employer incentives that assists individuals in gaining suitable employment and credentials.
Keywords: reentry, workforce development, public safety
In March of this year, U.S. job openings surged to a record high of 8.1 million, underscoring a rapid increase in labor demand as COVID Vaccinations accelerate and states reopen their economies (Bloomberg, 2021). The number of vacancies exceeded hires by more than 2 million, the largest gap on record and serves as evidence of current hiring challenges. Despite the availability of jobs, many employers say they are unable to fill positions because of ongoing fears of catching the coronavirus, child-care responsibilities and the continuation of unemployment benefits (Bartash, 2021). What is not being discussed however, is a population of individuals who could meet those hiring demands.
In the past several years, states have overhauled their criminal sentencing and prison structure to lower prison populations which has resulted in more than half a million people being released from prison. However, in a study of 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005, over a 9-year follow-up period, researchers found that 44% of released prisoners were arrested during the first year following release, an estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within the first 3 years, and 79% within 6 years (Alper & Durose, 2018). With current recidivism rates being so high across the country, there has been more of an emphasis on reentry for former offenders who are leaving prison and returning to the community. As a concept, reentry involves any program, initiative, or partnership that addresses the issues necessary to ensure that former offenders successfully transition and maintain a crime-free existence post-release. These issues commonly include lack of education, job training, vocational experience, housing, substance abuse, and mental health treatment. Formerly incarcerated people who are recently released pose a significant challenge to public safety and yet the inability to obtain employment is often cited as one of the most important factors that contributes to recidivism.
It is important to note that while placing someone in a job is not an ultimate solution for reducing recidivism or improving long-term job retention, employment is still an important part of successful reentry and one of the best predictors of post-release success (Visher, Winterfield, & Coggeshall, 2005). Studies have shown that previously incarcerated citizens who are currently employed have increased financial stability, improved mental health, empowerment, stronger positive relationships, and are often less likely to offend (Nelson et al., 2018). With almost 95% of state prisoners admitted to correctional institutions eventually being released, the field of reentry is now more critical than ever as intervention programs; government funding; and educating policymakers, practitioners, and employers are necessary to assist restored citizens in their transition to the community (James, 2015, p. 1).
Employment Barriers and Collateral Consequences
One of the main objectives of individuals reintegrating back into society after finishing their period of incarceration is finding and securing employment. However, prior research has shown the stigma that incarceration or a felony conviction can have on a person’s employment prospects often leads to being immediately disqualified for many good paying jobs (Barber & Bucknor, 2016). In examining the effect of a criminal record on employment, Pager (2003) found that individuals with a felony background were less likely to receive callbacks for interviews for entry-level work. She also found that race had considerable bearings on the outcome, as black men with felony records were least likely to receive a follow up phone call (Pager, 2003).
A criminal conviction also brings additional sanctions and disqualifications that can form additional barriers on individuals reentering society and leading productive lives. The impact of these collateral consequences often is matched with people who have felony convictions. However, they also attach to individuals with misdemeanors as well as those who have simply been arrested and can last long after an individual has been fully rehabilitated. For example, some of the more common collateral consequences in the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC) are those that involve denial of employment or occupational licensing, as well as those that affect benefits such as education, housing, public benefits and property rights (NICCC, 2021). Other consequences in the database include:
- Ineligibility for government contracts and debarment from program participation
- Exclusion from management and operation of regulated businesses
- Restrictions on family relationships and living arrangements, such as child custody, fostering and adoption.
- Registration, lifetime supervision and residency requirements and
- Publication of an individual’s criminal record or mandated notification to the general public or to particular private individuals (NICCC, 2021).
Often times there are valid reasons for the existence of these consequences due to the nature of the crime individuals were found guilty of. However, questions remain as to whether these sanctions should negatively impact individuals for the rest of their lives after leaving prison.
While much has been discussed regarding the employment barriers individuals with a criminal background face, failing to employ restored citizens also has economic implications.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in any given year between 1.7 to 1.9 million people with backgrounds remain out of the workforce due to their criminal background, which comes at an annual cost of between $78 billion-$87 billion in gross domestic product (Barber & Bucknor, 2016). With the total cost of U.S. government expenses on public prisons and jails being over $80 billion, there is potentially billions in taxpayer dollars that could be better served in other areas (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017).
To address the rising costs within the U.S. corrections system, there has been recent research to suggest that decreasing prison populations alone, particularly those with non-violent offenses, have not only proven to be cost effective, but also an economic boost to the community. The Louisiana State University (LSU) Office of Research and Economic Development in collaboration with LSU faculty members and students, utilized data analysis to evaluate the risk prisoners posed to society and the needs they would have upon release. Since 2018, the Louisiana Department of Corrections uses TIGER, an LSU-developed tool, to help evaluate the risk posed by every incarcerated person in each of the eight prisons and numerous local jails across the state. All Louisiana prisoners now have a TIGER risk score, which guides critical decisions, such as who should (or should not) be released on parole. The tool also evaluates prisoners’ needs (such as mental health and past substance abuse) which helps guide parole officers in how they invest their time and resources. For their efforts, LSU has helped lower the Louisiana prison population by almost one-fourth in three years, saving the state more than $150 million annually (Hahne, 2021). In addition, many of the former prisoners have gained suitable employment and become productive citizens (Hahne, 2021). With so much being saved, this allows these additional funds to be reinvested into other areas of need such as education, victim awareness, mental health and other aspects of the reentry field.
Opportunities for Change
Although there are many obstacles facing those leaving prison, there are also opportunities for change. Due to the numerous obstacles facing former offenders, reentry should start the day when one enters prison as opposed to when they leave. This is a concept that has been well known among scholars, administrators, and practitioners, but has recently been adopted with jails and prisons as some correctional agencies have recognized the importance of reentry.
In May of this year, The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) announced their plan to expand soft skills training for inmates. In its role within the prison industry, CALPIA provides work assignments for about 7,000 inmates inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system (Fox 40, 2021). In September 2020, the board which oversees CALPIA approved the agency’s Essential Skills for Workforce pilot program which teaches the soft skills necessary to be successful in the workplace. The pilot program included about 10 to 15 inmates at several California prisons, and as a result, nearly 90 inmates who participated in CALPIA work programs have already successfully completed the pilot program (Fox 40, 2021).
Mississippi, which has had one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and an even higher recidivism rate, is one of 10 states selected to test Project Overcome through Goodwill of Mississippi, a new virtual reality interview program designed for those in the criminal justice system who want to enter the workforce. Through a simulated interview, individuals will speak face-to-face with a human resources manager in which they will be offered different answers from which to choose. The ultimate objective is preparing individuals for sharpening their interview skills while still incarcerated so that they are prepared upon reentry to do well in a job interview (West, 2021).
Other potential areas of change are increasing awareness of some of the existing incentives initiated by the Federal Government for employers that hire ex-offenders, such as the Federal Bonding Program, Work Opportunity Tax Credit, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The Federal Bonding Program is, essentially, insurance at zero cost to any employer who hires a job seeker that has a felony on their record. This program was formulated to alleviate concerns from employers who were reluctant to hire clients for fear of theft or damage. Bonds are issued from the federal government in $5,000 increments and up to possibly $25,000. Employers must reapply for the bond every 6 months (National Hire Network, 2017).
The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a federal income tax credit that provides incentives to private, for profit businesses to hire targeted groups of job seekers with significant barriers to employment including public assistance recipients, veterans, youth, and persons with felony records. Under the WOTC program, an employer that hires someone with a felony on their record, may claim a tax credit equal to 25% of the eligible new-hire’s first year wages if the individual works at least 120 hours, up to the maximum amount of $1500.77. If the individual works at least 400 hours, the employer may claim a tax credit equal to 40% of the employee’s first year’s wages, up to the maximum amount of $2400 (Hillyer, 2016). To be eligible for the WOTC program, the newly hired employee must have been convicted of a felony and have a hiring date that is less than one year from the last date of conviction or release from prison. The process for employers to claim the federal tax credit simply involves filling out and submitting Internal Revenue Service forms within twenty-eight days of the eligible employee’s start date (Hillyer, 2016). While these incentives have been in place for many years, many employers are unaware of these programs. With so many jobs now available post pandemic, both the Federal Bonding and Work Opportunity Tax Credit are a potential win for both employers and individuals with a criminal record who are seeking employment.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law in 2014, and was designed to help job seekers and those who have barriers to employment, to accessing education, training, and support services to succeed in the labor market and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy. The WIOA also increases the employment retention and earnings of participants and the attainment of recognized post-secondary credentials (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act [WIOA], n.d.). To be eligible for funding, adults who are at least the age of 18, who are eligible to work in the United States of America and, if applicable, registered for selective service can apply. The WIOA is also available for dislocated workers who have lost their job through no fault of their own, young adults aged 14-24 who are: basic skills deficient, homeless, need high school diploma, restored citizen, low income, runaway, foster child, pregnant or parenting (custodial or non-custodial), English language learner, or have a physical or mental impairment (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act [WIOA], n.d.).
Although some people may view those with a criminal justice history and their experience as unqualified, it is important that their voices are heard and that we understand their point of view. Policy makers, practitioners, and administrators in the criminal justice field should take the time to listen to the experiences of those who have been involved with the criminal justice system regarding their challenges finding suitable employment. Doing so would assist stakeholders across the criminal justice system better understand the complexities and reach of collateral consequences so that they can make more informed decisions to enhance public safety and help justice involved citizens successfully return to society. This could include passing legislation that drops barriers from working in employment fields that require a license, such as home health care, childcare, real estate, security, nursing, and education all of which makes it extremely challenging to land a job (Berson, 2013). While there should be serious consequences for criminal activity, citizens who have served their time should be given every opportunity to pursue housing, employment, and any assistance they need to reintegrate back into the community. Since most people eventually leave prison, it is critical that society gives them every opportunity to reintegrate successfully rather than returning to a life of crime. That is the right thing to do, and it makes us stronger as an economy, better as a community, and safer as a nation.
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Dr. Terrance Hinton is a Faculty Member in the Division of Criminal Justice, College of Safety and Emergency Services at Columbia Southern University. Dr. Hinton has over ten years’ experience within the criminal justice/public administration field. In his previous role of Program Manager for Reentry Services for a non-profit organization called Alvis Inc, in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Hinton oversaw two workforce development programs that served over 700 justice involved individuals annually including the Alvis E.D.G.E program, which gained local media attention due to its success during the pandemic. In addition to writing workforce development curriculums, Dr. Hinton has also facilitated classes inside and outside of prison to the justice involved during his tenure, which include anger management, workforce development and cognitive behavioral therapy courses. To date Dr. Hinton has worked with and assisted over 2500 justice involved citizens for reentry purposes. Dr. Hinton’s research interests include Reentry and Workforce Development for the justice involved. He has earned a Bachelor’s in Biology from Wingate University, a Master’s in Criminal Justice from Southern University & Agricultural and Mechanical College, and a Doctorate in Public Policy and Administration from Walden University.
Areas: Criminal Justice
Categories: Criminal Justice, General